WASHINGTON — President Bush's attack on Democratic rival Bill Clinton's patriotism sprang from an orchestrated Republican strategy plotted at a Tuesday morning Oval Office session involving Bush, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and four GOP congressmen: Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove, Randy (Duke) Cunningham of San Diego, Duncan Hunter of Coronado and Sam Johnson of Texas.
Dornan and Cunningham told Bush he could "kill Clinton, politically" if he would hammer him on the issue of the Arkansas governor's efforts to avoid the draft and his visit to Moscow when he was a 23-year-old Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in 1969.
Bush, echoing charges made days earlier on the House floor by Dornan and Cunningham, on Wednesday night challenged Clinton's patriotism on Larry King's CNN talk show. The President declared that Clinton should "level with the American people" on the draft and his Moscow visit, and accused the governor of leading demonstrations "against his own country from a foreign soil . . . when your sons and daughters are dying halfway around the world."
Dornan, who along with Cunningham described the session in an interview with The Times, said that in Tuesday's meeting, he urged Bush "to take the gloves off." Cunningham said the President "told us not to worry, that he would use the issue."
Cunningham, a highly decorated Navy combat pilot of the Vietnam War, said he told Bush: "This is an issue that will kill Clinton when people realize what a traitor he is to this country. In some countries, if something like this came out, he would be tried as a traitor. Tokyo Rose had nothing over Clinton."
Baker, Bush's chief political strategist, at that point "just laughed, but didn't say much," Cunningham said. The congressman said that Baker later stressed that the President must "remain aboveboard."
Cunningham quoted Baker as saying: "We cannot pick up the phone and use the power of this office to find the kind of information you're getting. You have to do it for us."
By challenging Clinton's patriotism during his CNN appearance Wednesday night, Bush virtually assured that the issue would be raised in the first presidential debate Sunday. And White House strategists clearly hope it will give new power to their thus-far unsuccessful effort to use the so-called character issue to reduce Clinton's commanding lead in the polls.
But the attack on Clinton brought sharp criticism from some Republicans. And it touched off bitter exchanges on the Senate floor Thursday as indignant Democrats assailed Bush for "McCarthyism."
"This kinder, gentler presidency has given way in the last days of the campaign to innuendo and smear," Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) said in a floor speech. Himself a Rhodes scholar, Bradley said he too had traveled to Moscow while studying in England. "I saw totalitarianism up close and was revolted by it," Bradley said. "What does the President imply--that we were unpatriotic to go? What hogwash!"
Some Republican senators rose to Bush's defense. A red-faced, angry Ted Stevens of Alaska said there was nothing wrong with questioning why Clinton went to Moscow and what he did there. "What I see is a man who wanted to avoid military service and now he wants to be commander in chief," Stevens declared.
Bush was unavailable for comment; Baker and his top aide, Margaret Tutwiler, did not return telephone calls.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, on the campaign trail with the President in New Orleans, denied that the Oval Office meeting with the congressmen had led to the President's attack on Clinton. Fitzwater said Bush had met with them "to hear their views on the issues."
A White House official, who declined to be identified, said Bush's decision to attack Clinton's patriotism "came from the gut."
Dornan and Cunningham said they met with Bush and Baker for 20 minutes to lay out their accusations against Clinton over the Moscow trip and his role in opposing the Vietnam War and to urge the President to use the points in attacking the governor.
Clinton has acknowledged that he engaged in anti-war protests when he was a college student, including when he studied as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, England. On Thursday, Clinton said he helped organize one anti-war protest while at Oxford--a "teach-in" at the University of London.
In the past, Bush had questioned Clinton's accounts of his efforts to avoid the draft, but never before had he directly challenged his patriotism.
In his comments on the King show, Bush said: "I cannot for the life of me understand mobilizing demonstrations against your country, no matter how strongly you feel, in a foreign land."
The President raised that point again Thursday night, saying in Houston that he could not understand "someone mobilizing demonstrations in a foreign country when poor kids drafted out of the ghetto are dying in a faraway land."